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February 7, 2017
The war of words between the new U.S. administration and the Iranian government escalated over the past few days, as President Donald Trump announced new sanctions on Iran’s missile program. Iranian media have condemned the U.S. move and sounded a note of defiance, even as it remains unclear whether the Trump administration will honor the nuclear deal signed in 2015. Meanwhile, many of Iran’s Arab neighbors and Israel have reacted positively to the new hard-line U.S. approach.
According to Iran’s state-run PressTV, Iranian officials have accused the United States of interfering in a domestic matter: “Iran has rejected any foreign meddling in its domestic affairs, saying the nation is ready to defend its missile program with full strength in the face [of] interventionist policies of other states. ‘The missile issue and Iran’s internal affairs are the Iranian government, its leadership, and people’s business,’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi told reporters on Monday....Qassemi further said the Islamic Republic was indifferent to the latest remarks by the U.S. officials as it is not the first time an American administration was making ‘contradictory,’ ‘threatening’, and ‘antagonistic’ statements against Tehran. He, however, said the new administration was yet to find its feet, and therefore it was too soon to make assessments about it. The official, meanwhile, reminded that Iran’s missiles serve the purpose of the country’s defense.”
The Tehran Times reports on further defiance from Iranian government officials: “A top Iranian diplomat who was involved in nuclear talks with great powers has said Iran is ready if anything happens to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly called the nuclear deal....The comments by Majid Takhtravanchi, the deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, comes as U.S. President Donald Trump and his national security advisor have used threatening language against Iran in recent days. ‘All sides’ obligations in the JCPOA are clear. Either the JCPOA is implemented or not we are ready for both situations,’ Takhtravanchi told ISNA in an interview published on Saturday....He added, ‘We are interested in successful and full implementation of the JCPOA and we are not seeking to violate it, but we have plans if its implementation is endangered’.”
But Kambiz Zarrabi, writing for Iran’s Payvand, is quick to point out that the United States is not the only other party to the nuclear agreement and, as a result, undoing it may prove to be more difficult than Trump might have thought: “One of candidate Trump's first boisterous gestures after promising to make ‘America great again’ was to tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran. What he did not know then, and is just beginning to find out now, is that the nuclear accord was negotiated between Iran and five other world powers beside the United States, and not the US alone for him to renege on! However, the Iran issue, whether he understood it or not, had been, and continues to be, of great concern for the new Commander-in-Chief's shadow handlers....If Mr. Trump does not understand how world affairs are conducted, no doubt his advisors, especially those behind the scene around him, do. They know that imposing more economic sanctions against Iran has no more effect than pouring some salt on old wounds. All it would do is aggravate the situation and prolong what the United States considers to be Iran's belligerence and the so-called provocative behavior.”
In an op-ed for Iran Daily, Hossein Valeh searches for a conspiracy, believing that the new U.S. administration is set on conflict with Iran on behalf of its longtime regional rival, Israel: “Israel is making attempts to push President Donald Trump’s administration to trigger a war against Iran in the Middle East....Israel is under the illusion that a new military confrontation in the Middle East will push Europe to avoid criticizing Tel Aviv and once against throw its weight behind the regime....Israel believes that provoking a war against Iran will drive some Arab nations to stop their hostile approach toward Tel Aviv and join the fight against the Islamic Republic. This could help Israel press ahead with its radical policies....the Trump administration has said the White House will not scrap the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However, during his presidential campaign, the business mogul had threatened to tear up the agreement. Washington’s compliance with the JCPOA has raised serious concerns among Israeli officials.”
Conspiracy theories aside, there is no doubt that the new direction that U.S. foreign policy is taking has proven popular not just in Israel, but in Arab capitals, where Iran’s rise is viewed as a threat to regional stability. This Jerusalem Post editorial offers an Israeli view: “It is too early to say precisely how Trump’s policy vis-a-vis Iran will differ from Obama’s. But it is safe to say that the new president has a different approach. Obama saw the Iran nuclear agreement as one of his most important foreign policy achievements. Under his leadership the U.S. went out of its way to play down Iran’s aggressive behavior and violations. The working assumption was that it was in the U.S. interests to keep the deal intact and smooth over differences....In contrast, Trump has made clear his opposition to the agreement. While he might not be pushing actively for its annulment, from a strategic point of view Trump seems willing to risk seeing Iran renege on the deal. At the very least, the Trump administration will probably be more willing to aggressively enforce it and show zero tolerance for violations....Ultimately, weakening Iran and preventing it from asserting its influence in the region is a US interest as much as it is an Israeli one. In contrast to the rather chaotic beginning to the Trump era in many spheres, the American reset in its relations with Iran is a welcomed development.”
There is also little sympathy for Iran among its Arab neighbors, as indicated by this editorial found in the pages of The National, which places the blame for the recent escalation on Iranian leadership: “Faced with two options, Iran’s leaders always appear to take the more provocative one. Mere days after Donald Trump took office, Iran conducted a ballistic missile test, which has sparked a war of words with the Trump administration....None of this is helpful, but sadly neither is it unexpected. As Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, tweeted in Arabic on Friday, it is Iran’s interference in the Middle East that has created such turbulence. This current standoff with the U.S., Mr Gargash noted, is neither in the interests of the Middle East nor of Tehran itself....Rather than recognizing a historic opportunity to rejoin the international community, Iran’s leaders have continued pouring resources into inflaming sectarian tensions across a host of Arab countries. Iran’s meddling hand is detectable in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain.”
Similarly, Asharq Alawsat’s Tariq Alhomayed draws a contrast between what he considers the accommodating policies of the Obama administration versus the “resolute” U.S. foreign policy articulated by Mr. Trump in his inaugural address: “Irrespective of the outcome, the U.S. warning simply spells the end of a honeymoon shared by the cleric-led Tehran and an Obama-styled Washington…. Tehran today is challenged by a strict, driven, strong and decisive U.S., which was not the case with the lenient and hesitant Obama administration. All the more, Europe, which always thought twice about Iran-curbing decisions in an effort to avoid upsetting Obama, has started altering its statements....We stand before a new stage. In light of talks on Syria safe zones — opposed by Iran — resurfacing, and Washington warning Tehran on its continued support for the Houthi-led coup in Yemen, we might be looking at an escalation. This new stage means the turning over of Obama’s page filled with hesitancy and weakness. It is the start of Trump’s resolute times, in which a man rather rises up to a confrontation, which can cost Iran, even if the pay is in economic terms.”
All of this makes for a very uncertain future in the region. The leadership in Iran, writes Byseth Frantzman in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post, will have to come to grips with a new and more challenging geo-political landscape: “Now things are changing. Those who oppose Trump’s more aggressive policy accuse the administration of ‘empowering hardliners’ and accuse Trump of seeking a needless foreign war to boost his popularity. The reality is that there are no Iranian ‘hardliners,’ in this context. Iran’s ‘moderate’ politicians have supported the most warlike period in Iran since the early 1980s....The Trump administration’s focus on Iran’s role in the region, rather than grandstanding about the nuclear issue, is a welcome departure from misleading policies of the past. The nuclear program was never as important as understanding the overall Iranian policy in the region and the world.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.